This visually striking diaphanous fish pictured above and below is, in fact, responsible for what some have dubbed the most devastating ecological disaster of our times. Don’t be fooled by the wispy lionfish, they are true killing machines. Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific oceans, where they evolve at a natural rate and with no threat to the environment. However, humans have somehow introduced them to the Atlantic Ocean. The first sighting of a lionfish in Florida dates back to the mid-eighties. They now rule the waters from the Carolinas all the way down to South America, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, and don’t seem to be slowing down. This highly invasive species is decimating fish, crustacean and mollusk populations along the way and doing so very quickly.
WHY ARE LIONFISH A THREAT
They reproduce much earlier and much faster
A female lionfish can start laying eggs as young as a year old and can lay 2 million eggs a year at a rate of 15 to 30 thousand every 4 days! The eggs are held together in gelatinous sacs and are carried by ocean currents. The eggs have a higher survival rate than many other species and lionfish can live between 15 and 20 years. So how many eggs does that make exactly?
They have no natural predators
Lionfish have no natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean. Barracudas and sharks don’t recognize them as prey since they’re not familiar with this non-endemic species. Efforts to create a taste for lionfish and their babies in other species have not yielded any success so far, which means that the lionfish are at the top of the food chain and taking full advantage of it.
They are voracious carnivores
Lionfish are not picky eaters and will eat anything that fits in their oversized mouth. Their stomachs can expand up to 30 times their size and they can eat up to 90% of their body weight in fish on a daily basis. Lionfish eat every fish and crustacean out there, including shrimp, lobster and crab, and are decimating entire populations, including many fish species that we consume. They also eat the fish that clean the corals, which means corals will die without these fish, which in turn will kill many other fish that depend on corals for sustenance.
They are effective predators
Lionfish have perfected their hunting technique. They ambush their prey and have been known to cooperate on hunts. They use their pectoral fins to coral fish up to half the size of their own bodies into corners then aspire them into their large mouth. The local fish don’t recognize them as a threat since they are not endemic. In fact, some of the tropical fish mistake the spines for structures that will provide them with protection.
They prevail in many environments
Lionfish are hardy and seem to be able to live in any environment, from the most brackish waters to the clearest. They have been found in shallow waters as well as at 1000 feet deep. They can sustain highly fluctuating water temperatures from 10ºC to 35 ºC.
They are difficult to fish
Most people will not venture to fish (or hunt) lionfish since their venomous spikes can prick them. A lionfish prick is very painful and will swell up and, in some cases, will get infected if it’s not treated properly. However, a lionfish prick is not usually deadly unless the person has an allergic reaction to it or a lowered immune system. Hunting them takes practice and is done with a spear or a hand held net. Hunting lionfish is effective and local fish population have thrived again after lionfish have been culled from their reefs.
They are tricky to clean and cook
This is the reason why they’re not served in many restaurants but that’s changing. They are, in fact, not so tricky to prepare but it takes some learning. Their spines stay venomous after the lionfish die so they need to be cut away carefully with shears before the fish can be prepared and cooked. Once you know which spines are dangerous and how to shear them away, the rest is easy and lionfish make an excellent meal.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
Lionfish are delicious! The fish carry their venom in their spikes but their flesh is not poisonous. The grilled meat is tender and flaky and can be consumed raw or cooked. A few celebrity chefs have started serving them and spreading the word, thus helping the cause. Order lionfish every time you see it on a menu and spread the word! The more popular the fish become, the more people will demand them in restaurants and at their fish mongers and the more lionfish will be hunted.
If you’re a scuba diver, look for lionfish hunting dives the next time you travel to the Caribbean and learn how to hunt them. As mentioned above, hunting lionfish helps cull the population. After all, mankind has driven many species to extinction and this is one species we want to drive extinct, but only where it doesn’t belong, of course. So learn how to hunt them and talk to other divers about it so they can also learn.
Buy lionfish products
Some entrepreneurs throughout the Caribbean have started making jewelry with the striped and patterned lionfish scales. Encourage these efforts by purchasing some of these trinkets. They also make natural conversation starters about lionfish!
Spread the word
Talk to anyone who will listen about the lionfish issue. If you have a platform, use it to spread the word. At the very least, tell them about how delicious lionfish are so that they may start ordering it too, thus creating a higher demand for it, which is one of the best avenue there are right now to deal with this problem.
The main thing to take away from this article is that we need to spread the word about this ecological disaster. The more people are educated about it, the more incentives and actions can be taken to deal with this issue which affects us all.
Book your direct Air Transat flight to the Caribbean.
Cover photo credits: Alexander Vasenin